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Is Your PC, Laptop, and Flash-Drive Data at Risk from Prying Eyes?

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Using a combination of software and hardware solutions can defend against data theft.

 

The best reason to encrypt your data is because you have a very good chance of losing your laptop when you're traveling. I asked a hotel clerk once if there had ever been a problem with items being stolen out of the guests' rooms. "No, not really," he said. "We have had the occasional laptop disappear, but other than that, no one ever loses anything."

 

A 2006 survey reported on in Computerworld found that more than 80 percent of the 500 companies surveyed had lost one or more laptops containing sensitive information in the previous 12 months. A glaring omission by companies uncovered in the survey was the absence of knowledge by the IT departments about where sensitive data resides. Sixty-four percent of companies surveyed reported they had never conducted an inventory of sensitive "consumer" information or of employee data. Not only did employees lose laptops with sensitive information, but so did contractors. Those little USB drives with increasingly large storage capacities also pose a major risk. How long does it take to determine exactly what data is missing after a laptop is lost or stolen? The question is meaningless because the data is never accounted for, according to IT survey respondents.

 

Today, many people use BlackBerries, iPhones, and other handheld devices to transmit and receive emails, which undoubtedly contain sensitive information. The book Where Have All the Emails Gone? by David Gewirtz discusses the frightening lack of security in email communications among former residents of the White House and the staff members' scary policy of sending email through non-government servers.

 

Back in 2008 in TNT, we cited several approaches to PC encryption, including the open-source TrueCrypt application, and now we'll take a look at other approaches. While software encryption has its place, hardware encryption can be a lot more effective if someone is really determined to find out what information you are trying to keep confidential. Software encryption programs are a good first line of defense, but they're vulnerable to a variety of encryption attacks. Hardware-based encryption can offer a stronger defense. And what about locking down those USB ports?

 

IronKey offers a line of hardware-encrypted USB flash drives that take data security to the next level. While not perfect, according to users, who cite convenience issues the company admits it is still is working on, most find the USB drives highly effective in securing data, whether it needs to be moved between computers or not. One feature that is a convenience is that IronKey's drives don't need software, drivers, or administrator privileges, so it's easy to move the drive from one computer to another.

 

The big draw to this device is that if it's ever lost or stolen, there is almost no chance your data will be compromised. The drive is tamper-proof and even waterproof. It has a number of sophisticated features that render the data useless if anyone ever tries to tamper with the device. It's not uncommon to try to remove the flash memory chip and mount it on another computer, something to which IronKey drives are not vulnerable.

 

A common trick to crack a regular software-encrypted USB drive is to plug it into another computer and then use dozens or thousands of hijacked parallel machines on a botnet to crack the password or key. A hardware-based encryption device can help prevent this approach by not mounting onto another PC until the correct password has been entered. The IronKey drive generates its own encryption keys from a true random-number generator. The devices aren't inexpensive, costing around $125, depending on the size, but they have the added feature of secure Internet browsing. This can come in handy if you know someone is trying to break into your network and you want to discover who it is without scaring off the potential intruder.

 

We may not be able to prevent the theft or loss of every laptop or USB drive, but by using a hardware-encrypted storage device to transport sensitive files, we can prevent most data from falling into the wrong hands.

 

Another issue that is emerging today is the theft of data from USB ports by someone carrying a flash drive. When you think about it, your USB port on your PC or laptop is an open door to all your personal or financial data.

 

AC Element Co. out of Hong Kong has just released MyUSBOnly 6.0, a Windows USB control and security application that purports to prevent data theft through computer's USB ports. According to the company, while USB ports have made computing far more convenient, the ports have introduced a security threat that could subject many computer users to identity and data theft. The company notes that it is easy for people to plug a USB storage device into your computer and quickly download personal or financial data. According to the company, MyUSBOnly can put you back in control of your USB ports and can help thwart any attempt to gain access to your PC or laptops.

 

New features for MyUSBOnly 6.0 include compatibility with the company's new DeepMonitor Report Manager Console, an add-on report management tool that provides in-depth log information from each USB port. Users can review the event log, examine recent activity, view statistics, or search for specific, detailed security information. The latest version also includes the ability to deploy and configure MyUSBOnly remotely.

 

To set up the software, you first create a "white list" of all USB devices that you want to allow on your computer network. The program will recognize each of your flash drives, external disk drives, MP3 players, and other USB devices, and add them to its list of accepted hardware. These can be authorized by device brand or serial number.

 

The software has reporting features that include email notification every time somebody attaches a USB device to your desktop or laptop. MyUSBOnly also maintains a security log of all attempts to gain access to the computer through any USB device such as a flash drive, iPod, or card-reader. Modified and copied files are included in the log entries and can be configured to send all log information to syslog. You can use a syslog viewer, such as Kiwi Syslog Daemon, to view all the log entries from one or more computers in the network. Administrators even can hide the software from users if they choose to do so by not displaying any tray icons so the software quietly works in the background.

 

As the company says, protecting your USB ports can be as important as encrypting your data and maintaining anti-virus software. A friend of mine is a teacher, and once she opened the door to her office only to find one of her students trying to download some of her personal information onto a flash drive. Had she had this product loaded on her PC, he probably would not have been able to get away with it. MyUSBOnly 6.0 runs under Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista/7/Server 2008, costs only about $30 for a single-user license, and multi-user discounts are available. No word yet on a version to protect mobile devices, but that could be in the works. At this point, there is no additional charge for upgrades and technical support, the company says. Download a free 27-day trial version.

 

Editor's Note: Portions of this article appeared in a June 5, 2008, MC Tips 'N Techniques article titled "Hardware Encryption Offers Benefits over Software Encryption."

Chris Smith

Chris Smith was the Senior News Editor at MC Press Online from 2007 to 2012 and was responsible for the news content on the company's Web site. Chris has been writing about the IBM midrange industry since 1992 when he signed on with Duke Communications as West Coast Editor of News 3X/400. With a bachelor's from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in English and minored in Journalism, and a master's in Journalism from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Chris later studied computer programming and AS/400 operations at Long Beach City College. An award-winning writer with two Maggie Awards, four business books, and a collection of poetry to his credit, Chris began his newspaper career as a reporter in northern California, later worked as night city editor for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and went on to edit a national cable television trade magazine. He was Communications Manager for McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Long Beach, Calif., before it merged with Boeing, and oversaw implementation of the company's first IBM desktop publishing system there. An editor for MC Press Online since 2007, Chris has authored some 300 articles on a broad range of topics surrounding the IBM midrange platform that have appeared in the company's eight industry-leading newsletters. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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